Raptors -home and away

Flight.  If there is one thing above anything else that makes birds so amazing to me it has to be flight.  Looking into the eye of a blackbird as it watches you fill a bird bath you can feel an element of attachment.  The moment she leaves the tree to get to the water the attachment is broken.  In that instant she has done something I can never do.

And if that’s amazing what can be more spectacular than seeing migration in action. The most visible form is that of large birds of prey gathering to cross the narrowest stretches of sea when moving north and south.  Gone are the limited number of species and the odd glimpse of a Honey Buzzard through the trees if your lucky.  They move in thousands across the central flyway of the Mediterranean.  We hope to catch a few of them at least as we travel around Sicily, but will want to keep tabs on what others see.

In preparation I have treated myself to this wonderful book.  However I fear I have become more confused and fully expect to look up at my first rufous buzzard or ring tailed harrier and still not identify it as it circles away.  This is a must have book.  I wanted it when it was first published and should not have waited so long.  I doubt that all this information is sinking in though.


They are spectacular visible and easy to shoot.  The activities of illegal hunting was what has driven some of the most determined conservationists in Italy, Malta and elsewhere.  We point our finger at Jonny Foreigner and tell him not to rip birds from the sky in illegal hunting.

The problem being when you point a finger, three point back at you.  And here’s the rub.  There are lots of reasons why big birds that need hot weather to circle for prey (vultures) or for the prey to be available in large numbers (Short-toed eagles).  Even then we still do not look after what we have got.  In 2016 Red Kites shot and persecuted in North Yorkshire, buzzards illegally killed and hen harrier nesting attempts in England down to 3 from last years high of 13 (when there should be several hundred in England).

To add to this all Natural England has issued a licence for 10 buzzards to be shot so we can protect Pheasant rearing.  What madness is this?  Malta must be looking at us and saying we are glad Britain is leaving the EU look at what they do to their raptors.

Next weekend sees the 4th Hen Harrier Day celebrations.  Go along support the day understand that upland driven grouse shooting subsidised with public money are taking away amazing birds from the skies of England.  Don’t be conned into thinking Europeans are to blame for the mess we are in.  When it comes to birds of prey we can do that all by ourselves




Sicily -the research phase

As a birder how can I not be drawn to this triangular stepping-stone triangle of land (280km x 280km x 180km) on the central Mediterranean flyway? In addition to the flights of migrant raptors, it has a number of endemic taxon to appeal to the island evolutionary biologist and it is far enough east to provide a test to ID skills, for example two species of ‘sub-alpine’ warbler can be seen. Some parts of the island are also further South than Tunis and recent spring over-shoots have included Cream-coloured Courser and Bar-tailed Lark. It is also a regular wintering point for Isabelline Wheatear, Richard’s Pipit and Great-Black-headed Gull.

When I first broached Sicily to my wife, someone who had travelled widely in mainland Italy before we got married, it was a one word answer. No, with the descriptor being ‘Mafia’. Falcone a judge prosecuting Mafia crime had just been assassinated on the A29 Autostrada outside of Capaci, Palermo, the islands capital. As the lead in the fight against organised crime on the island hope of fulfilling a dream looked further away.

As I knew I would probably not go my fantasy developed wings of its own. What I really wanted was to spend some time in Tunisa in Spring catch the ferry across stopping a spots on the smaller islands, a couple of days in Messina counting raptors and then across to the mountains of Calabria. This will remain a fantasy especially since the Home Office still has Tunisia on a list of countries to be concerned about independent travel.

However, it was still a surprise, when out of the blue; Sicily went on the destination plan for September 2016. Knowing I may only be going once I want to make the most of the two weeks and began doing some research. As this has become a bit obsessive I thought it would be useful to just put this all in one place as it may help other independent travellers.

Since Falcone’s death and that of Borsellino, the nature of organised crime has changed.  As well as extortion and drugs there has been a branching out into waste management –toxic waste management.  However, the self imposed night-time curfew in 1993, that made a trip to Palermo as likely as one to Kabul, has been lifted. I may gather this research into another blog post as, like in other countries, organised crime has a big impact on the environment.  Times change and different issues dominate news from the island.

So with this in mind we booked four hotels around the island for three to four nights each –Siracusa (SE), Agregento (SW), Cefalu (N)and Taormina (NW). The aim is to take in the birds; climate; history; landscape; food; and ‘driving’ over a two week period. Having limited ourselves in this way we will not be taking in any off shore island, so Pantelleria’s African Blue Tits will have to wait. Also Trapani and other points in the North West of the island are out of reach, but as some trip reports have talked about access problems at the Saltpans here I don’t feel too bad at the planning stage.

Everyone who is anyone has been to Sicily over the last 2500 years and before that back into prehistory. There was even a point where Queen Victoria almost bought Lampedusa, the island reaching the headlines as its closest point for boats of migrants leaving Libya to get to. Now wouldn’t that have made for a more difficult response from a UK Government to this humanitarian need? Currently, these people are the responsibility of the Italian Government and managed through centres across Sicily and on Lampedusa. Many of the boats used to smuggle these people lie abandoned at Portopalo at the South East corner of Sicily.

Where to go?
My starting point for any trip to Italy is, ‘A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Italy.’ It’s a tried and tested format giving a general guide to species, habitats and travel. For Sicily it lists eleven sites, widely scattered across the island, but mainly in the NW and SE.  In addition there are a few tour companies who travel to the island, mainly in Spring –e.g. Ornitholidays , Naturetrek and Limosa. These focus on the east of the island from Mount Etna south and across as far as Gela. Interestingly, none seem to take in the raptor watch point at Messina which I would have thought was one of Sicily’s spring treats with its 40 species of recorded raptors.  So I will cover that separately.  Most do take in Saline di Priolo, just North of Siracusa (where we will spend our first couple of nights) but in-spite of the pictures of Flamingos, waders and Caspian Terns it does look like it has an air of RSPB Saltholme’s industrial units.

A common feature of these appears to be a renowned birder native to the island Andrea Corso. Most of these tours last a week with some repetition as to where they go and overlap between the two tour companies in the west is inevitable and these overlap with some of the places in the book. In addition an independent spring birder covered some of the similar areas in 2012 but had a great selection of photographs from what was seen.  In September Limosa have been to the North West and focused on Trapani and the off-shore islands.  This gives a flavour of the Autumn migration period.

There are other areas across the island that do not get as much publicity, including one owned by the World Wide Fund of Nature (Torre Salsa). This list has suddenly made two weeks seem much too short.  Some of the reserves mentioned in the reports are run by LIPU –the Italian Birdlife Partner, which also has a UK Branch. Whilst Birding in Italy faces a number of challenges they have made some huge successes and any contribution before you travel to the country would be money well spent.

What to see?
Top of the want list has to be Sicilian Rock Partridge and Marbled Duck.
After that Caspian Tern in flocks sounds exciting. Picking through autumn warblers with the prospect of Eastern Sub-Alpine and Moltoni’s as well as finding a pool of autumn ‘yellow’ wagtails is a mouth-watering prospect.
In addition Sicilian taxon of Long-tailed Tit is going to be worth the chase and in the northern mountains if I can get this I may also get Nuthatch, which looks worth a look.

Nuthatch, Nebrodi, 26-Apr-12 (A5) L Nuthatch, Nebrodi, 26-Apr-12 (A14) L (1)

pictures by Dave Appleton 2012.

By comparison a Nuthatch from the NE of England by @HilaryChambers

nuthatch chambers

Then there will be the birds of prey including the resident Lanners and the distinctive migratory calidus Peregrines. Not to mention ‘Steppe’ and Long-legged Buzzards. One can dream, but as part of the holiday will be spent pool-side looking at the sky not an impossible one. And finally another chance to Scopoli’s Shearwaters, following the ones we saw 2013 from the ferry to Capri. These are such beautiful birds it almost makes you want to go sea-watching.